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Amid North Korea’s threat, South Korea plans becoming more self-reliant in military by building and selling it’s own weapons

North Korea launched a series of short-range missiles in March, marking its first missile tests in 2020 and signaling Pyongyang’s intent to follow through with leader Kim Jong Un’s promise to possess a “new strategic weapon” in the near future. In his 2021 address to members, Mr Kim had pledged to expand North Korea’s nuclear weapons and military potential, outlining a list of desired weapons including long-range ballistic missiles capable of being launched from land or sea and “super-large warheads”.


Kim  has also succeeded in  developing  an ICBM operational capability through which it can  deliver a nuclear weapon anywhere in the United States, according to analysis based on Images released by North Korea. Leader Kim Jong Un declared the country had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force”. Kim Jong Un’s regime is believed to have between 25 and 60 nuclear weapons. IN 2021, North Korea has unveiled a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile, described by state media as “the world’s most powerful weapon”.


North Korea has responded with rise in defence spending to counter the North’s expanding nuclear capabilities and other regional threats. The South Korean National Defense Ministry’s latest budget is set to increase by 7 percent yearly, which means that the country is going to spend around $240 billion on defense from 2020 to 2024. And a sizable chunk of that money, $85 billion, is going to “arms improvement.” China and Japan are also increasing military spending, and Russia has started flying patrols jointly with China, most recently flying over an island claimed by South Korea, which prompted warning shots and a small diplomatic crisis.


United States and South Korea  decided to counter North Korean missile capabilities with an advanced Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence antimissile battery that can shoot down short and medium-range missiles. But, the battery only has a short range and cannot cover the whole of the country. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which is currently positioned only in Seongju County of North Gyeongsang Province, is designed to intercept missiles within a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles). Southern parts of the country lie within that area, but the capital Seoul — by far the most densely populated area of the country — is not.


A second limitation is that THAAD can be overwhelmed. Even if it covered the Seoul metro area, it may not shoot down everything coming its way if the North were to fire multiple, short-range missiles — and Seoul is only about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the border at its closest point. “It’s harder to catch a low ball that comes in high speed than to catch a ball that comes at you in a parabolic trajectory. The same applies to a missile defense,” Professor Kim Dong-yub of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies told South Korea’s YTN news channel last week. “The THAAD becomes useless for South Korea if a missile comes below the interception altitude and at a high speed.”


In addition to THAAD, South Korea has around eight batteries of the Patriot defense system, and the United States separately operates roughly the same number there. But even the combined efforts of the systems isn’t enough to counter an overwhelming missile attack, some experts say. “Patriot has a much smaller range. North Korea can fire outside those areas,” Rand Corp. defense analyst Bruce Bennett told CNBC, adding that “these batteries are not mutually reinforcing. They tend to be spread out to different places.” The exact locations of those Patriots are classified.


Against the backdrop of recent missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, reports out of South Korea have suggested the possibility of the country buying an upgraded version of Patriot or an interceptor system called the SM-3. Japan already uses those batteries. The problem is money. According to a calculation by South Korean media, it would cost the country about $1.7 billion for South Korea to load 20 SM-3 missiles onto three Aegis naval vessels, including the cost to renovate the ships. That would be about a fifth of the $10 billion allocated for the country’s military acquisition and research and development.


Analysts say South Korea has other frustrations with its old ally the United States, the world’s biggest weapons exporter. For one, U.S. defense companies don’t share the latest developments without demanding a huge payout from South Korea to help cover their research and development costs. The Trump administration is also reportedly demanding an almost fivefold increase in South Korea’s contribution to the cost of basing around 28,500 American troops in the country.


For now South Korea is still shopping American, and most recently they announced the purchase of 20 new F-35 fighter jets with vertical takeoff capabilities for $3.3 billion. But the frustration with needing to pay up in order to catch up has helped push forward the idea of South Korea’s military becoming more self-reliant, according to Pinkston.

South Korea’s indigenous push

South Korea will spend more than 80 percent of its 100 trillion won (US$91.9 billion) defence budget for the next five years on locally made weapons instead of imports.  During the Cold War, in response to threats of North Korean aggression and a withdrawal of US support, the Park Chung-hee government (1961–79) prioritized security independence through domestic weapons production. This doctrine of self-reliant national defence (chaju kukbang) has since been adopted by every presidential administration and defence budgets have steadily increased. Even former South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008) — liberal critics of Park’s authoritarianism and deep believers in North Korea engagement — continued and reinvigorated chaju kukpang by supporting domestic defence manufacturing.


The military is also turning its focus to domestic research and development and seeking to become a major arms supplier. Until now, most of those weapons have been U.S.-made. But South Korean officials expect a more even balance on future Armed Forces Days as they increase their own weapons production in the face of the threat from North Korea and Washington’s uncertain stewardship of stability and peace in East Asia.In January 2019, South Korea changed its defense offset policy to focus more on local production and export than technology transfer with foreign defense contractors.  And, in the long run, those weapons are going to be exported around the world, said Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at Troy University based in Seoul.


The defense industry of South Korea is the main supplier of armaments to the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. Originally reliant on the United States to supply weapons to its armed forces, South Korea evolved to manufacture its own weapons through the country’s modernization and military reforms. Due to this transformation South Korea has developed its own robust defense industry and exports its products to many other nations. South Korea is one of the leading suppliers in the global arms market.


According to Defense News Top 100 list for 2020, four of South Korea’s defense companies were ranked in the top 100 defense companies of the world. These companies are Hanwha (32nd), Korea Aerospace Industries (55th), LIG Nex1 (68th), and Hyundai Rotem (95th). South Korea’s shipbuilding is the largest in the world, possessing some of the largest and most advanced shipyards, with the shipbuilding industry accounting for 6.5 percent of the country’s GDP. South Korea’s expertise in shipbuilding gives it an advantage in constructing larger warships; having the infrastructures, technologies, and skills necessary to construct warships. On August 14, 2019, South Korea announced plans to produce a 30,000-ton light aircraft carrier (LPX-II) as part of its five-year defense plan between 2020 and 2024.


Most of South Korea’s domestic weapons are produced for its ground forces, as its military is primarily designed to fight a potential North Korean land invasion. Unmanned ground vehicle and other autonomous technologies have been developed for South Korea’s ground forces. In mid-2020, South Korea announced the development of an unmanned K1 88-tank and K9 Thunder SPH


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic affecting internationally and in South Korea the country’s defense industry was negatively affected by domestic financial and operational difficulties, as well as the decrease in arms export. In response, the South Korean government began to actively support domestic industries and implement changes to increase military exports. The first measure implemented is strengthening coordination between ministries to support defense export and positioning several domestic-purpose products for exports. One such domestic product pushed for export is the KAI KUH-1 Surion.


South Korean government spending more on domestic contracts. In mid-June, 2020, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo met with CEO’s of various contractors to discuss ways on adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic. These adjustments include increased government spending on domestic products, moving delivery timelines in light of possible schedule delays, and waiving penalties because of these delays. These domestic defense contracts reportedly include 20 KAI T-50 aircraft worth ₩688 billion or $570 million delivered from Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) to the Republic of Korea Air Force, 60 KUH-1 Surion helicopters worth ₩1.3 trillion delivered from KAI to the Republic of Korea Army, K56 ammunition resupply vehicles worth ₩380.3 billion from Hanwha Defense, 30-mm self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAG) worth ₩251.7 billion from Hanwha Defense, maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) deals on K9 Thunder (₩194.3 billion).


Chunma short-range surface-to-air missiles (₩238.3 billion) from Hanwha Defense, sales of K105A1 self-propelled howitzers and MRO deals on assault amphibious vehicles from Hanwha Defense to the Republic of Korea Marine Corps, combat engineering vehicles worth ₩236.6 billion from Hyundai Rotem, depot maintenance deal worth ₩63.2 billion on armored recovery vehicles and armoured vehicle-launched bridges from Hyundai Rotem. With regards to Hanwha Defense, it is reported that the defense company is performing very well despite the pandemic. The company secured ₩1.2 trillion or $1 billion worth of contracts within the first half of 2020 and expects to secure another ₩1 trillion worth of contracts within the second half.


Another effort is to boost support for local supply-chain by promoting and developing domestic substitutions of imported products or components. In April 2020, the MND invested $37 million to establish a “defense industry innovation cluster” in the city of Changwon; with the goal to launch several more “clusters” within the next few years. The purpose of these “clusters” is to support small enterprises in replacing imported components and systems; funding of which is directed to industry and research institutes to support regional research, development and production.


Another program involves funding small to medium size enterprises to develop prototype components and/or subsystems to replace imported versions of the same parts. The funding program is to last for five years with a maximum funding of $8 million per project. Military products and/or programs supported by the import substitution include the KF-X fighter, KAI Light Armed Helicopter (LAH), active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, guided air-to-surface missiles, future surface combatants, and local transmissions for the third phase production of the K2 Black Panther.


South Korea also has a long-term interest in promoting domestic defence manufacturing as an engine for export growth, particularly as the Moon administration struggles with other areas of economic policy. This high-tech industry has benefited from South Korea’s impressive efforts over the past two decades to improve R&D and gain a bigger slice of the global technology market. Civilian innovations have facilitated upgrades in military technology, prompting the government to offer expanded support for businesses specialising in IT and weapons-related R&D. South Korea is also a major player in areas such as artificial intelligence, big data and 3D printing, and is among the top arms exporters worldwide. These industries will be critical for the country as it seeks to rebuild its economy post-COVID-19.


South Korean government is also enhancing cooperation in defence technology with India and have decided to and promote industries working in this field. “It was also agreed to take forward the agreements in the field of defence industry and defence technology cooperation between the two countries,” said the Defence Ministry. China has transgressed into Indian territories in recent times. A total 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on June 15 2020  in the bloodiest clash between the two forces in four decades.



Rising Defense Exports

Between 2010 and 2014, South Korea exported its weapons to only seven countries, with more than half of the exports going to Turkey. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of countries purchasing South Korean military hardware’s increased to 17. This means by 2019, South Korea’s exports grew by 143 percent, essentially more than doubling from the 2010-2014 period. Countries from Asia and Oceania accounted for 50 percent of South Korea’s arms export, while 24 percent came from European countries and 17 percent from the Middle East. In 2018, South Korea was ranked as the 11th largest arms exporter in the world by SIPRI. The country’s top three clients were Indonesia, Iraq, and the United Kingdom. In 2019, South Korea became the 10th largest arms exporter according to the same study conducted by SIPRI, making it the first time South Korea entered the top 10 list. The country’s main clients in 2019 are still Indonesia, Iraq and the UK.



The KAI T-50 Aircraft  is one of South Korea’s most successfully exported weapons platform and has been credited for South Korea’s increased arms export.  Despite some failed bids, the T-50 has been exported to the Philippines, Iraq, Indonesia and Thailand; as well as a number of countries expressing interest in procuring the aircraft, such as Argentina. On May 26, 2019, KAI was contracted by the Royal Thai Air Force to upgrade the T-50TH for $50.6 million.


One of South Korea’s most recent domestic defense projects is the KAI KF-X multirole fighter jet, developed jointly with Indonesia but spearheaded by Korea, which holds 80 percent of shares in the project. The production of the jet has recently entered its second phase, and Korea has rolled out the first prototype in April 2021. The new KF-21 Boramae is an advanced multirole fighter designed for South Korean and Indonesian air forces to replace their ageing fleet. Boramae means young hawk in the Korean language. According to media reports, Boramae is expected to make its first test flight in 2022, with manufacturing set to start in 2026. At least 40 of the jets are planned to be delivered by 2028, with South Korea expecting to deploy 120 of them by 2032.


As 65 per cent of the jet is South Korean in origin, the country – a close ally of the United States – is now the eighth country in the world to have mastered the technology needed to develop an advanced fighter jet. At a roll-out ceremony, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said “a new era of independent defence has begun, and it’s a historic milestone in the development of the [South Korean] aviation industry”.  China is not afraid of being outpaced in terms of military modernisation, analysts said, after South Korea last week unveiled a prototype of its planned 4.5th-generation fighter jet, as the two countries are looking at different export markets.


Ground vehicles/weapons

The K9 Thunder is described as South Korea’s most popular export and one of the most popular self-propelled howitzers in the world. This is due to its competitive performance and price range. The self-propelled artillery has been exported to Poland, India, Finland, Estonia, and Norway. South Korea and Turkey co-developed the T-155 Fırtına based on the K9 Thunder.


The K2 Black Panther main battle tank is another land vehicle that is being exported. The tank has been sought in large quantities by Poland and Oman, as well as, co-developed with Turkey to produce the Altay tank. South Korea could sell 76 K2s to Oman in a deal worth up to $884.6 million.


A variant of the K21 called the AS21 Redback IFV has been proposed to the Australian Army for its Land 300 Phase 3 procurement program. The program is looking for 450 IFVs to replace Australia’s M113AS4 APCs and is worth up to ₩5 trillion.



South Korea’s shipbuilding sector is quite successful in exporting warships to other countries. The country’s own expertise in shipbuilding makes it less reliant on foreign technologies, compared to its aircraft and ground vehicle production. This gives South Korea’s shipbuilding an advantage as it can bypass export restrictions imposed from another country.

Indonesia purchased six Jang Bogo-class submarines from DSME; the first batch of three on December 20, 2011, for $1.1 billion and a second batch of three on April 12, 2019, for ₩1.16 trillion ($1.02 billion). These purchases made South Korea the fifth largest submarine exporter in the world at the time of the second deal.


South Korea deployed swarm drones and killer sentry robots for surveillance and weapon attacks

South Korea also requires surveillance technologies  to keep watch  on the North , according to a  senior South Korean official the South lacks a military satellite, however, the US and Japanese satellites share images with South Korean officials in real time. South Korea is also planning to deploy drones  and drone swarms for surveillance and  weapon attacks. South Korea’s military is planning to set up a weaponized drone combat unit to bolster its ability to defend against North Korea, the Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency reports.


“The Army plans to set up a special organization to lead the development of dronebots, establish a standard platform and expand the dronebot program by function,” a South Korean army official told Yonhap. “To begin with, we will launch a dronebot combat unit next year and use it as a ‘game changer’ in warfare.” Dronebot is a combination of the words “drone” and “robot.” The drone unit, set to be launched in 2018, will be used for surveillance and will also be ready to mobilize to launch attacks.


ROK has also deployed killer robots  on the DMZ  to reduce casualties across the border as well allow the ROK to match with massive military force of North Korea in case of flare up.The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 250 kilometers (160 miles) long and approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide, is one of the most heavily militarized border in the world, patrolled all along its length.


South Korea has deployed the automatic sentry guns, Samsung SGR-A1 and the Super Aegis 2 in the DMZ. Super Aegis 2 an automated, turret-based weapon platform capable of locking onto a human target three kilometers away. The Samsung SGR-A1 is $200,000, Sentry Guard Robot has IR and visible light cameras and motion sensors to detect and track multiple targets from over two miles (3.2 km). It can give warning and provide suppressive fire against intruders, through a 5.56 mm robotic machine gun under the control of a human operator from a remote location.


Super Aegis 2, manufactured by DoDaam of South, Korea, supports a variety of weapons, from a standard machine-gun to a surface-to-air missile. It uses sophisticated thermal imaging software and camera systems to lock onto a human-sized target even in the dead of night. The system requires no human presence., It’s operated remotely from a distant control room.


The SGR-A1 robot is developed jointly by the Korea University and Samsung Techwin Co. It has a CCD and an infra-red camera, allowing it to detect and track targets at ranges of up to 4Km during the day and 2Km during nighttime. The system uses pattern recognition software to distinguish humans from animals or other objects. The robot can verbally command an enemy target to surrender, recognize the surrendering gesture of the soldier’s arms held high and then decide not to fire. If the intruder is unable to provide the necessary access code when at a distance of ten meters, the Samsung SGR-A1 can either sound an alarm, fire rubber bullets or make use of its Daewoo K3 5.56mm machine gun. There are also moral and ethical issues with these killer robots, they pose a great threat to human rights, and international community need to evolve sufficient controls to govern their use.


Biggest Challenge  its continuous dependency on foreign technologies.

One of the biggest challenges the South Korean defense industry face is its continuous dependency on foreign technologies. Although this issue has and is still being addressed, South Korea still struggles to develop some technologies domestically; forcing the country import what they can’t develop in time. This can lead to delays and cost overruns, especially if South Korea can’t acquire the components from another country. In April 2015, the US denied transfer of AESA radar, electro-optical targeting pod, infrared search and track systems, and radio frequency jammer to South Korea for their KF-X fighter program.


Moreover, the reliance on foreign components can also restrict South Korea’s export since the country that developed the imported parts can prevent the export of the whole weapon system. In the past, the US Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations has hindered South Korea’s arms export to Third World countries as South Korea’s arms often made with US components. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Germany banned the export of the K9 Thunder to either countries due to the artillery using German engines. South Korea announced it would develop its own engines for the K9 in order to become more self-reliant and circumvent the export restriction imposed from another country.


Similarly, Germany placed an arms embargo on Turkey, preventing the country from obtaining German MTU engines and Renk transmissions for its Altay tank, the same ones used for the K2 tanks. Turkey sought South Korea’s aid to help recover the Altay program by using South Korean engine and transmission. This however raises concerns over the viability of that option as South Korea has failed to develop their transmission system.


In October 2020, the UK barred South Korea from selling FA-50 aircraft to Argentina. The sale was prevented because of an existing arms embargo UK imposed on Argentina following the Falklands War. The FA-50 uses six parts of British origin. Argentina selected the FA-50 to replace their ageing A-4 Skyhawk and act as an interim replacement for the retired Mirage III fighters.


References and resources also include:


Cite This Article

International Defense Security & Technology (February 2, 2023) Amid North Korea’s threat, South Korea plans becoming more self-reliant in military by building and selling it’s own weapons. Retrieved from
"Amid North Korea’s threat, South Korea plans becoming more self-reliant in military by building and selling it’s own weapons." International Defense Security & Technology - February 2, 2023,
International Defense Security & Technology August 19, 2021 Amid North Korea’s threat, South Korea plans becoming more self-reliant in military by building and selling it’s own weapons., viewed February 2, 2023,<>
International Defense Security & Technology - Amid North Korea’s threat, South Korea plans becoming more self-reliant in military by building and selling it’s own weapons. [Internet]. [Accessed February 2, 2023]. Available from:
"Amid North Korea’s threat, South Korea plans becoming more self-reliant in military by building and selling it’s own weapons." International Defense Security & Technology - Accessed February 2, 2023.
"Amid North Korea’s threat, South Korea plans becoming more self-reliant in military by building and selling it’s own weapons." International Defense Security & Technology [Online]. Available: [Accessed: February 2, 2023]

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